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Pet Sins July 2006

The media stereotype of oppressive, intolerant Muslim men and its real world implications

When Muslims (and male Muslims in particular) appear in Western media, whether it be news or fictional entertainment, their images are largely negative, the most popular contexts being violent demonstrations or terrorist acts. Muslim men are often depicted as intolerant religious extremists, culturally narrow-minded anti-Western types, misogynists, or all three rolled up into one. True, such people do exist, and I am not at all saying that Western media cannot talk about them. But the media has a duty to provide the bigger picture, that is, they should also balance their reporting with more positive stories such as Indonesian Muslims Support Embattled Christians on CNSNews.com, and Muslims plan to guard Indonesian churches on Xmas. Both stories are from 2005, but it is not the first time that Indonesian Muslim leaders have organized Muslims to defend non-Muslims against Islamic extremists.

In the Middle East too, there are positive stories to be told. For example, in the recent bird flu outbreak in Turkish, Muslim clerics and their pulpits were a key part of the outreach campaign aimed at educating the general population about health risks. Of course, some people may argue that Turkey and Indonesia are more moderate Islamic countries and that the real problem lies with the Arab world. But in the Arab world, people are not necessarily as provincial as Westerners may think. Arab investors and Muslim charities based in Arab nations operate all over the world. The outflow of Arab Muslim capital and educators have accomplished positive things in many countries. But Westerners tend to think they are the only people with a global worldview and global reach, so they downplay stories of non-Westerners operating on an international level, except when these people are terrorists or criminals. There are many Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims taking a vocal stand against criminals like Osama Bin Laden and his ilk, not as secular individuals, but as people of faith, but the Western media chooses not to focus on these other voices from the Muslim world.

I am not claiming Western medias tells no positive stories of Muslims. There are certainly a few good stories here and there. It is just that it would help to see more of them. With negative images of Muslims far outnumbering positive images, it is no wonder that many Westerners have biases against Muslim people, most of whom happen to be of non-European origin.

The popular Western stereotypes of Muslim men in general and Middle Eastern men in particular are most bluntly portrayed in the relatively recent American movie Second Hand Lions. A white American male serves in the French legion in North Africa. He devotes his time to battling slave traders (North African men) and rescuing their victims (North African women and children). Very simply, the Muslims men have been positioned as the oppressors of their own women and children, who need a white non-Muslim man to rescue them. Said white hero is purportedly the best rider in the whole of North Africa - seemingly, the male talent pool of the vast population of native North Africans cannot produce anyone to match him. The only native who matched the white guy in riding skills turns out to be a woman. The native woman has come specially to meet the 'handsome American' after hearing about his heroic acts and prowess in battle. Predictably they fall in love. Their disparate social status does not matter. A mercernary is enough of a match for a princess because his whiteness makes up for the rest of the equation.

Enter the Middle Eastern male villain again - the princess is engaged to a tyrannical prince who already has a large harem. The cardboard villain comes complete with the fake "hahahahaha" stereotypical villainous guffaw. OK, I know the movie is deliberately cheesy and most of the characters are by design rather two-dimensional, but the prince is way over the top. This shifty, dishonest Middle Eastern man is angry to see his impending marriage threatened by an interloper and takes the princess captive.

Of course, in the Western imagination, the exotic Middle Eastern woman who has found a white man would rather die than accept a Middle Eastern man. The princess stands with a dagger ready to kill herself but of course, the white hero fights his way through the prince's castle just in time to save her. [A very similar scene exists in Showdown in Little Tokyo, only in that case it is a Japanese woman who prefers suicide to submitting to a perverse man of her own race. Of course, the white man fights his way through the villain's stronghold to save the non-white woman before she plunges the dagger into herself.] Wives of the prince are portrayed as having zero loyalty to him, and fully in sympathy with the white man. Without hesitation, they help him to locate and rescue his dusky beloved.

The movie belittles Middle Eastern men in every possible way - on the levels of their character, their sense of honor, their professional achievement, and their family life. They do not even deserve the loyalty of their own women. Unfortunately, this kind of portrayal is too typical. And because Westerners do not always differentiate between Middle Eastern Muslims and non-Middle Eastern Muslims, stereotypes of Middle Easterners have the potential to hurt other Muslims too. [By the way, the Western idea that the woman of color prefers death over abandoning a white lover in favor of a man of color is not applied to Middle Eastern or Muslim women alone. This motif appears many times in films and stories about non-Muslim Asian women and white men too, the most famous being Madame Butterfly, but there are many more.]

Do stupid movie stereotypes matter? Yes, if the brainwashing of Western audiences results in people thinking like Lieutenant General James Mattis, a white male who served in Afghanistan. According on the 2005 AP article "Marine General Counseled Over Comments":

Lt. Gen. James Mattis, a career infantry officer now in charge of developing ways to better train and equip Marines, also made fun of the manhood of Afghans during comments Tuesday while speaking at a forum in San Diego.

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

His comments evoked laughter and applause from the audience. Mattis was speaking during a panel discussion hosted by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association...

The alarming thing about the audience laughing and applauding is that it shows that many Americans share Mattis' values. If you have a US Marine general like Mattis acting like some 'great white savior movie hero' on the ground, killing hordes of Muslim men supposedly in the interests of oppressed Muslim women, then I am concerned that the casualty rate among the natives might be higher than it needs to be. Treating real life humans like cardboard movie villains may well have a tragic cost in human lives.

Jan 2006